- Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History
By any standards, this is a most impressive work, bold in conception and ably executed, with a combination of judicious comments, thoughtful insights, clear prose, and stellar range. Christian takes his history on all and every timescale as he sets out "to assemble a coherent and accessible account of origins, a modern creation myth" (p. 2). This involves ranging from the origins of the universe and closing with the future. Furthermore, this is not simply a matter of narrative, as Christian aims to analyze and explain process along the way. To produce such a dynamic account, he faces the particular challenge that, whatever their particular expertise, much of the book will be terra incognita to its readers. This leads him to have to offer clear explanations, and he succeeds in doing so, as when he compares much evolutionary change to "the shuffling of a vast deck of cards" (p. 149).
Given his scale, it is not surprising that Christian searches for trends. For example, he argues that although the history of the era of agrarian civilizations was characterized by innovations of many kinds, generally of an incremental, not revolutionary, type, nowhere was innovation sufficient to keep up with the pace of population growth. Nevertheless, the growing diversity is seen as a major cause of collective learning, "for it increased the ecological, technological, and organizational possibilities available to different communities, as well as the potential synergies of combining these technologies in new ways" (p. 284).
Modernity is then Christian's subject and means of analysis. In accordance with the current orthodoxy, he argues that "the emergence of a global network of exchanges hugely stimulated commercial activity [End Page 371] and ecological innovation throughout the world. The enhanced scale of information exchanges in a global information network boosted rates of ecological innovation, while increased commercial exchanges accelerated the sorts of innovation identified in Smithian and Marxist models of modernity" (p. 363).
This is not a triumphalist account, as Christian draws appropriate attention to destructive societal and environmental consequences of his modern revolution. As the time scale picks up, he turns to the future, first considering, in an instructive fashion, large-scale human space travel, with humans adjusting to particular local environments, and then, a universe that eventually becomes "no more than a depressingly thin sprinkling of photons and subatomic particles" (p. 491).
Aside from the physical strand, there is also due attention to the biological. In considering theories of state formation, Christian discusses analogies with the nonhuman world, specifically transitions to greater social complexity, including on the part of cell combinations, antelope, and social insects. He argues that the parallels lend credibility to bottom-up theories of state formation, which see states as the solutions to problems experienced by all members of dense, congested communities.
It is stimulating throughout, but is it fair to Christian to compare him with Newton and Darwin, as William McNeill does in the foreword? Partly this is a problem of Christian's style. The grand sweep of this book does not readily lend itself to the academic culture of debate and equivocation. While reading this book, I noticed a reference in another work to the problems, in light of the state of the research, of reconstructing human settlement during the last glaciation in the northern hemisphere.1 Christian is aware of such problems of evidence, but he does not emphasize them. Furthermore, he is apt to cite historians who share his approach, for example, Charles Tilly on Europe, without drawing adequate, or indeed any, attention to other points of view. This may be a consequence of pressures of space, but there is need for an engagement with other opinions.
Another problem is the catch-all quality of modernity, for example, "the modern state is also a product of the economic transformations of modernity" (p. 429), and the association of political modernity with [End Page 372] bureaucratic statehood. A more cautious assessment of the capability of states and of the character...